Chris Maden reviews Lindsay Varty’s fascinating tour of a disappearing Hong Kong.
Lindsay Varty, photography by Gary Jones, Sunset Survivors (Blacksmith Books, 2019), 80pp.
Lindsay Varty was raised in Hong Kong and, with a short break for university, spent her entire life there. She is fluent in Cantonese and recalls being taken by her parents for congee in Sham Shui Po and snacks in dai pai dongs. Her photographer, too, is a resident of thirty years’ standing. Their delightful book, Sunset Survivors, is an affectionate take on Hong Kong’s living history.
Hong Kong has come far since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In the 1950s and 60s this city was flooded with refugees, its public services were overwhelmed and the new arrivals were, for the most part, poor peasants with little education. They settled in vast squatter villages to which the government, until the Shek Kip Mei fire of 1953, paid little attention. From night soil collectors to herbal practitioners, letter writers to seal makers and mah-jong parlours to dance halls, the refugees had to create their own city. Some of those professions have since disappeared – night soil collectors are a thing of the past – and many have been marginalised by Hong Kong’s designer-brand culture. In Sunset Survivors, Varty tracks down and interviews a representative cross-section of those who remain.
The resulting book consists of 30 mini-profiles. Each follows the same format: a potted history of the person and their business, a couple of quotes – some funny, some poignant, yet all pithy – and an overview of the industry as it was, and as it has become. These profiles are interspersed with short chapters that detail past times, reminding us that Hong Kong was not always a rich city of vast skyscrapers, but was once an impoverished backwater.
Gary Jones, the book’s photographer, has a knack of capturing on film the type of person that Varty describes. Some of the “sunset survivors” are happy-go-lucky types who acknowledge they will be the last to practice their trade, others are creating a future by publicising and promoting theirs. With many, there is a mixture of contentment of a life well lived, and sadness that they are the last of their lines. To capture this, both in words and on film, is a rare talent.
Among the book’s colourful case is the owner of a snake-soup restaurant who lets his father kill the snakes because he’s an animal lover (out of sight, out of mind); the mah-jong tile maker who can’t play mah-jong; the herbal-tea maker who suggests taking his potion before sleep so as not to suffer the side-effects; and the “friendly and affectionate” dai pai dong owner who concedes that being rude is the style of such places.
There are industries I didn’t realise existed: such as the hand manufacturing of, variously, copper pots, traditional Chinese scales, stencils and bamboo steamers (they had to come from somewhere, but I never paused to wonder where). There are shoe shiners, knife sharpeners and letter writers. This being Hong Kong, there is also food in many forms: not only the snake soup and tea, but also salted dried fish, rice, pineapple buns and turtle-jelly soup. And let us not forget face threading and villain hitting.
I hope that Sunset Survivors will not be the only volume that Lindsay and Gary produce. The back alleys of the older parts of Kowloon are, I suspect, also fertile grounds for such research, as may be the Outlying Islands and more remote parts of the New Territories. It would also be nice to see a complementary collection of longer essays with more details than the format of the current volume permits. Be that as it may, for anyone with an interest in historical Hong Kong, this book is a must.
Chris Maden lives and works in Hong Kong. He is a key figure in the Hong Kong Writers Circle.